Baudrillard on the Virtual

October 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

“In the virtual, we are no longer dealing with value; we are merely dealing with a turning-into-data, a turning-into-calculations, a generalized computation in which reality-effects disappear. The virtual might be said to be truly the reality-horizon, just as we talk about the event-horizon in physics. But it is also possible to think that all this is merely a roundabout route towards an as yet indiscernible aim.”


Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. Translated by Chris Turner. London: Verso. 2003: 40-41.

Panic America

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment


It’s not highly original to invoke a pathological metaphor for describing a nation. But panic is different. Because it contains a threshold between individual and collective forms of asocial behavior. Take the example of the highway. As I have claimed before, America is organized around the highway as a means of transportation, a means of communication and it may also serve as a general metaphor of sociability. Each auto-nomous unit traveling on the highway tries to stay in motion, and reach their destinations with the least troublesome effort. There are only a few rules and separate lanes make orientation easy. But as soon as there are too many automobiles, erratic drive patterns begin to increase, as many start looking for their own advantage by changing lanes frequently, accelerating and breaking more often, thereby disturbing the otherwise smooth flow of vehicles. Although all are oriented in one direction, the disturbance in the pattern of flow creates ripples way beyond the congested zones. I think of panic as something like this rippling of disturbances that occurs for no immediate reason, but that has real effects elsewhere.

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes individual forms of panic as anxieties that are not shared or even perceived by others. Clues of the environment are interpreted in only one direction – to increase panic, threat, helplessness – which can amount to becoming a sense of self (perception). Panic as a collective behavior is most often associated with natural disasters or economic panics. Watch the holiday videos made in Southeast Asia during the 2004 tsunami, where the same big wave that was great fun at the beach tips over to become a lethal threat. This moment of changing perception describes panic. Similar in economic panics. A small number of  investors begin to see a threat, a decline in returns, and begin to sell unprofitable assets. Like the driver on the highway changing lanes quickly, they cause disturbance in the usual behavior of others by disappointing chiefly the expectations of others as to what constitutes ‘normal behavior’. They signal a change in the very ‘normalcy’ and contribute to a collective rethinking of procedures among all others. This, in turn, makes the situation worse. Whatever the decisive factors in a panic situation, each has a moment of passing a threshold from normalcy to emergency.

Created by and A-.M-.

Panic America in Words: c/o and A.M.


When a crowd gets into a panic, it is unable to look for the source of its unease, unable to change the situation or even analyze possible solutions. Panic breaks out when a certain number of people gets uneasy at more or less the same time. As they see the conditions of ‘normalcy’ dissolve, they start violently defending their own self-interest against the interests of others. When a large crowd of people, at concerts or demonstrations, gets into a bottleneck situation, a long time will pass before individuals start to protest or move out of the situation. It’s the time before the threshold and the level of tolerance seems to be very high, assuming that anyone will prefer a state of normalcy – even in distress – to a state of emergency.

Yet, after passing the threshold of realizing panic, the cycle of self-interest eating up social norms begins. Panic breaks out. Defending one’s own self interest against all others, in turn, provokes the exact same reaction. In a panic situation, help can only come from the outside or through a sudden change of the situation. Panic is a defense mechanism and will subside as the threat that caused it disappears.

By breaking the thin tissue of normal social conduct and interaction panic questions the assumed normalcy of our environment, of our sociability and brings up a residual anarchic element in human psyche that is all about survival of the fittest. The pursuit of self-interest suddenly becomes apparent in its asocial consequences during a panic situation:

“[T]he usual rules according to which individuals adjust their behaviour so as not to work at cross-purposes are nullified. In the more dramatic instances of collective panic, people trample on one another in vain efforts to reach safety.” [A panic situation] “encourages the intensified pursuit of individual rather than collective goals.” (LMK (Lewis M. Killian)/NJS (Neil J. Smelser) “Collective Behaviour” (pp. 556-567). The New Encyclopeadia Britannica, Macropedia, vol. 16, 15th edition, 1988, Chicago: Encyclopeadia Britannica Inc. p. 561).

Panic describes the moment of the threshold, not its cause or effect. “Panic America” then neither postulates that America is panicky, nor that it’s more prone to such disorders than other nations. America is the testing ground for the limits of the threshold of panic, constantly shifting the balance between productive self-interest and disastrous self-interest.

Modesto, California 2012

14,600 and counting …

October 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Detail of Ryoji Ikeda “DB” (author’s hand not part of the artwork), at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, April 2012

Dear anonymous reader,
You appear now and then. You are many, 14,600 and more have encountered this page. You seem to be perusing it’s content at length, clicking on links and other material. You are a citizen of the States, of Canada, of Brunei, Turkey, Latvia, Venezuela, the Russian Federation, Mongolia, Japan, Singapur, Australia and many more countries. And you are nothing but a trace in the data stream. A figure, a character set, an evanescence that soon disappears. You are not a person.

I am not blogging on my puppy, my recipes, my musings on life (or what you take for it). You are looking for symbolic exchange and yet even after you read the definitions here you are incapable of it. Your interest is opaque, your collection of data traces remains unseen on the front end. The text you weave is every second. This channel is one-way and you are the receiver. As I am, too.

In all its open visibility, this blog as millions of others is obscure and hidden in traffic of restless bits chasing each other around the globe, millions of times a day. The data packages that come together in you machine are not mine, not anybody’s. They will never meet, they are resend if they fail to arrive. In a life form like this chance encounters are the rule and unlikely. If neurons were conscious they would ask for a relief pill.


Urbane Miniaturen: Curry am Wansee

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Curry am Wansee. Aus dem aufsteigenden Nebel grüßt Kladow herüber. BMW-Weltcupsegler dümpeln auf dem seichten Wasser vor sich hin. Schwarzwaldhäuser am Uferrand. “Kevin, komm von dem Klettergerüst herunter, das ist nass”. Sagt eine Frau zu ihren Freunden, dem Spielplatz zugewandt: “… und das steht hier, seit wir damals nach Berlin gezogen sind. Der Kleine wollte da immer rauf”. Damals in den 80′ern, als im See noch ein Zaun den Blick in die Freiheit der Welt versperrte – also aus der anderen Perspektive. Der weltgewandte Lebenskünstler, schlank, locker, herzend-scherzend grüßt die Schüchterne im Petrolkleid zum Abschied anzüglich: “That’s all I want” (baby, aber das sagt er nicht). Eine sichere Sache. Sie kommen alle her, die Schwaben, die in Spandau das beste Eis der Welt gefunden haben wollen, die Radler und die Junggesellen beim Kindl aus der Flasche. Auswanderer, wer weiß woher? Der Lautenspieler spielt jetzt leise “Who will stop the rain” und der Regen hört auf.

Taming the Land

July 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

When the settlers on the Mayflower first approached the American continent nature was unexpectedly hostile to their civilizing efforts. The land was strange and the dangers were legion. Bill Bryson has remarked that the first pilgrims to arrive at the East Coast were unfit and badly equipped for the new circumstances on the continent.

They packed as if they had misunderstood the purpose of the trip. They found room for sundials and candle snuffers, a drum, a trumpet, and a complete history of Turkey. (…) They were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigours ahead, and they demonstrated their manifest incompetence in the most dramatic possible way: by dying in droves (Made in America, 5-6).

Unlike the politically hostile climate in Europe, the new continent was an even more existential enigma, a challenge to established customs and norms because it was so very barren, so devoid of any sign of European style habitations. And still today, the European traveler marvels at the disorienting maze of freeways, highways and thru-ways, which seem to go on for miles and miles before a ramp branches off into a neighborhood that was around the corner from the point of departure. THRU TRAFFIC MERGE LEFT. RIGHT LANE MUST TURN RIGHT. Safe guidance in an uncertain environment.

Likewise, Americans are disoriented in European towns of medieval layouts, where no apparent pattern guides the explorer from A to B. Layer upon layer of historical upheavals and consolidations has been cast in brick and mortar to form an agglomeration of buildings and passages which only time spent wandering can render transparent. The experience of space differs distinctly in both environments and that might be a good reason for the mutual attraction of Europeans to the vast expanse of the North American continent and of Americans to the whimsical mazes of European capitals.

Fortunately enough, the traveler today no longer faces the hardships of past times because the land has been tamed. In its experiential quality, the space of America depends on the reliable functioning of its automobile  and communications infrastructure. While it is an often encountered snobism of Europeans to mock the American reliance on cars – and indulge in praise of the virtues of sustainable public transportation – the car and the land it has created still mark an exceptionally interesting feature of American society. And just as tame and predictable as the highway rolls across the land, ubiquitous information online allows for a tame and predictable experience of this very same land. The American habitat is exceptional in its expanse and yet even more iconic of the two taming trends of modernity – individualized transportation and communication.

American Habitat

In his essay “Babel in Europe” (1957) Lewis Mumford bemoaned that European architects and landscape planners were constantly imitating American models. Architects planted skyscrapers in French towns as a sign of modernity (e.g. the incredibly misplaced Tour de Bretagne in Nantes). Urban planners laid out grids of centers and suburbs connected by highways modeled on the American metropolis (and Le Corbusier’s special visions of the future). Mumford especially criticized the destruction of urban centers, in America and Europe alike, for enhanced auto-mobility.

We still habitually sacrifice all the special values of the city to the function of motor transportation, as during the nineteenth century they were sacrificed to the railroad and the factory. In many of our expressways and viaducts and cloverleaf intersections, our highway engineers, in defiance of the lessons the past should have taught them, are butchering good urban land as recklessly as the railroad builders did in laying out their terminals and marshalling yards. (reprinted in The Highway and the City, 18).

This is a familiar lament. One of the recurrent features in descriptions of America is to juxtapose the agricultural farmland of the Mid-West with the density of the big coastal sprawls. But especially in the many dwellings between these two extreme types we find a typical structure of residential developments interspersed with freeways and shopping centers. Whereas public transportation works more or less in urban centers, a city like Los Angeles is already too widespread to offer any useful service of that kind. Although the disastrous effects of individual auto-mobility are becoming more and more apparent, starting from Mumford’s ‘butchering’ of cities to climate change and dependence on fossil fuels, a defining feature of the American landscape remains its automobile infrastructure.

Despite the vast heterogeneity of local identities and the broad spectrum of climates across the land, all these forms are equally available through individual transportation and a repetitive infrastructure of consumption. The land may change but the freeway and the brands posted by the roadside assure the traveler of a stable and predictable environment.

The American habitat is built around mobility which bridges the discrepancy between individual aspiration and collective cohesion. Empowered by the steering wheel, individuals can dash out any minute to drive wherever they please. But as soon as they enter the road, others will block the way. In a spatial and cultural perspective, this infrastructure of mobility is reassuring. Wherever you go, there will be Chevron and Esso, Baskin Robbins and Wendy’s, Subway and Taco Bell, Wells Fargo and Chase, Rite Aid, Lowe’s and Home Depot, Bed, Bath and Beyond.

The land is experienced through the man-made divisions of geometrical state borders, interstate junctions and food courts. The brands of civilization obliterate the vast expanse of space, which is unnameable and untamable. The warning signs near the desserts “last gas for 150 miles” are the definite limit of tame land.

American Mobility

“CARE4EM” [petlovers], “N2OPERA” [opera fans] or “RVR_BUMS” [fans of Mitsubishi's RecreationVehicleRunner?]. Individualizing license plates is to communicate, and to communicate in turn is to reduce insecurity. When there are no more plots to organize life, a life told in bumper stickers is at least a temporary structure. Transportation and communication are those two areas of modern life where America has left its indelible mark on the world. Communication reduces insecurity but increases complexity. Around the corner unknown chances are waiting – a better life, a better bargain – existential parts of the American Dream.


In America, you don’t own a car, you drive a car. The aim here is not to possess, but to acquire the right to partake in mobility. Buying cars on a lease plan is similar to a subscription service for mobile phones. The phone may be an object of possession but its function is crucially to allow access to the network of other users. Cars and mobile phones open access to networks and both embody the vision of an individual subject empowered by technology beyond the limits of collectivity. Arguably, the prominence of individual spatial mobility as a crucial component of the American Dream obscures the diminishing chances of social mobility because it places responsibility of success in individual hands. YOU CAN MAKE THAT CALL.

In a recent article and interview for The European, Winfried Fluck argued that the notion of American Exceptionalism was still a form of “national glue” which accommodated many conflicting ideals and ideas of America. Even in a time of crisis (financial, economic, political), American Exceptionalism was still the dominant national idiom which could instill a sense of superiority and national unity. And even in times of crisis, this idiom remains strangely immune to criticism from outside.

But such international comparisons are still rare in American discourse, because nobody wants to be the messenger who brings the bad news. Things will therefore drag on for the time being in the same way in which they do right now: on the one hand, constant discussions about whether American society is still Number One, on the other, bitter disagreements about what makes it Number One, or what could make it Number One again. Only when the idea of American exceptionalism should lose its imaginary power, will it be time again to ask the question what it actually is that holds American society together. (Winfried Fluck in his Article “American Exceptionalism as National Glue“)

One such glue is the almost dialectic relation of individual mobility and communication which at once tames and exploits the land’s vast expanse for personal improvement. Despite diminishing chances of social mobility, both of these components of the American Dream still have a real and empowering effect. It may be more common in cultural criticism to follow the Adorno line of arguments and dismiss this very reality of experience of the land. But the tame land has an incredible attractiveness across the globe – from Konstanz to Kobe, from Beijing to Brasilia. With communication technology at their hands, the pilgrims today would be arranging accommodation beforehand, pack clothes appropriately and visit only those famous landmarks that the guide book recommended. It’s no longer an adventure but instead of “dying in droves” they would be dining in the groves of tame land.

All photos by the author. Please use the comments section to request hi-res copies.

The Promise of an Island

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photo by Sean O'Flaherty aka Seano1 atwal singh, published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.

At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.

But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.

“It’s the New American Dream”

But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.

In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,

“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”

In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.

“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”

Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.

But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.

In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.

From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.

Vom Nutzen der Vereinigung

November 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Rein rechnerisch sind 5 DM immernoch 2,56 Euro aber an diesem Automatenbetreiber ist wohl ein Gutmensch verloren gegangen. Statt dessen kostet eine Packung Präservative hier nur einen Euro. Es sind wahrscheinlich auch nur noch zwei und nicht mehr fünf darinnen zu finden. Anlass genug, doch einmal einen Gedanken an die symbolische Dimension von Preisen zu verlieren.

Douglas Adams, u.a. Autor des Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, sagte einmal, dass ein jeder Prima(t)ner die Zeit seiner Pubertät als die Normalität ansieht. Zum Beispiel in Bezug auf Medien. In dieser Phase ist so ziemlich alles, was vor dem eigenen Geburtsdatum existierte unbedeutend, es sei denn, es bezieht sich auf die unmittelbare Familiengeschichte. Ab dem Moment der Pubertät gewinnen bestimmte Präferenzen für Moden und Medien Dominanz, sie werden zum Normalfall der Generation postuliert. Mit zunehmendem Alter gerinnen diese Präferenzen zur Norm einer selbst alternden Generation. Ergo wird alles, was danach folgt als Verfall der eigenen, nicht angebiederten Kultur gesehen. Man bemerkt alsobald neue, konservative Charakterzüge an sich und empfindet nun diese wiederum extrem avantgardistisch. Gegen die Konformisten ist man eben Konformist des Andersseins.

So ähnlich verhält es sich mit den Preisen für Waren. Alles wird immer teurer. Und das wird jeder Ökonom bestätigen – es muss auch. Weil Löhne steigen, weil es Inflation von Währungen gibt und weil es an dem Verbrauchsmaterial Geld aufgrund der Druckfreiheit von Staatsbanken nie einen Mangel gibt. Einen Preis von vor zwanzig Jahren als den einzig gültigen und akzeptablen anzunehmen ist so anachronistisch, wie das Familienalbum nach Neuigkeiten zu durchsuchen. Obwohl ein Brötchen zu meiner Jugend 5 Pfennig (Ost) kostete, machen mir 15 ct (Euro) keine Sorgen, obwohl das samt Kaufkraftverlust nun eigentlich eine Mark und achtzig sind. Soviel kostete eine Woche Mittagessen (im Osten). Der symbolische Preis ist wohl eher eine Wegmarke, wenn man an der stetigen Einkommensvermehrung keinen Teil mehr hat oder von ihr ausgeschlossen ist. Dass einem Preis eigentlich ein gegenseitiges Bewertungsverhältnis von Aufwand und Nutzen zugrunde liegt, stört bei dem allgegenwärtigen Preisanstieg wohl niemanden. Statt die Karre einfach stehen zu lassen, fährt der Golf jeden weiteren Kilometer um 2 oder 5 oder 36 cent pro Liter mehr und alles, was einem bleibt ist sich darüber zu beklagen. Auch die Symbolik des Automobils ist nicht mehr, was sie einmal war.


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